St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Augusta, GA
July 31, 2011
Gen 32:22-31, Matt 14:13-21
The Rev Deborah Magdalene
I have a photo of Jacob wrestling with an angel over my bed. It was taken of a stained glass window from the sacristy at my seminary in New York City. The picture of that window reminds me of my time in seminary, but its position over my bed is a symbol of my 24-hour-a-day struggle to follow God’s will for my life. Picturing my life with God as a wrestling match in the dark of night is an apt metaphor for my own responsibility in being a child of God.
Our encounters with the Holy are much more likely to occur during our naps, get-aways and alone-times than in the midst of frenetic activity. God’s kingdom can break through the edges and seams of our existence with more ease than when we are caught up in our daily grind. We enter the liminal space between heaven and earth when we let our guard down and try to relax. It is then that our unexamined fears and anxieties seep like flood water into our carefully cleaned houses.
The struggle begins when we try to hang on to what God would have us do in the midst of our anxiety and let go of old, tired patterns of behavior that get us nowhere. In that space between heaven and earth, where God meets us face-to-face we are challenged to become more holy than human, letting our fears take a ride while we grab that angel of hope and hang on for our lives.
Jacob was at such a turning point in his life. After what must have felt like a lifetime away from home, he is finally within reach of the land of his grandfather Abraham, his father Isaac, and his estranged brother, Esau. The same brother who Jacob cheated out of his birthright; Esau, from whom Jacob stole his father Isaac’s blessing by disguising himself as his hairy older twin; Esau, with whom Jacob wrestled in the womb, and clung so stubbornly to his heel that Esau’s birth actually helped pull Jacob out into the world.
As we join the story today Jacob is afraid that the years spent away from his ancestral home will have allowed Esau to simmer in resentment to the point of boiling over when he finally lays eyes on his devious and dishonest brother.
So Jacob sends elaborate presents to Esau along with carefully worded pleas for good will. Then he sends all of his possessions, including all the women and children, on ahead of him while he stays behind one more night in prayer, pleading with God to change the course of his fate.
“Deliver me,” he prays, just before this story, “from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him…” (Gen 32:11a) After praying, he sends the gifts for Esau on ahead, along with his two wives and eleven children. He is left alone. Jacob has done all that he can do to manipulate and massage the worrisome situation. From this point on whatever Esau decides to do is in God’s hands.
So Jacob waits as it begins to grow dark. And although the man he wrestles so fiercely with proves to be none other than an extension of God himself, Jacob doesn’t realize this until after his hip has been permanently dislocated. He can look back on the night-long wrestling match and see the numinous quality of a Holy encounter.
This encounter with God takes every ounce of strength and endurance that Jacob has … and leaves him wounded for life. Jacob holds on for dear life to this holy being who is leading him into a new birth. Just as he held on to the heel of his twin, Esau, letting Esau guide him to new life, so Jacob clings to the angel – insisting on a blessing.
And that is what this story is all about. God’s blessing. We are to understand from this nocturnal wrestling match that we receive God’s blessing not just through our plaintive prayers, but through our ability to struggle with and endure the strange, and often deadly relationship with God.
God demands our participation in our own and other’s salvation. We must seek solitude and quiet places where we can invite God to come and wrestle with us.
Commentator Terence Fretheim suggests that God seeks out these liminal, or borderland, spaces in our lives in order "to enhance the divine purpose" and to allow us to practice for the challenges that lie ahead. He says, "To go through it with God before we go through it with others provides resources of strength and blessing for whatever lies in the wings of life."
Jacob was destined to wrestle with God as he wrestled with his brother in the womb. Just as he held on for dear life to the heel of his brother, he held on to the angel until he received the light he was seeking.
Jacob emerges from this struggle with the courage to face his brother and suffer whatever consequences await him. When he finally sees his brother approach he is caught off guard as Esau runs to embrace him and cover him with kisses and tears of reconciliation.
What wrestling with God foreshadows is the loving embrace of a brother who has no reason to forgive Jacob. Carrying the blessing of a new name, Israel, which means “one who strives with God,” Jacob must live with the memories of his impulsive youth, represented by a permanent limp in his gait.
But Jacob carries with him the knowledge that he hung on to God with a ferocity that birthed a new nation, as well as a new relationship with his brother.
Which brings us to our gospel lesson for today.
Jesus is intimately aware of the holy spaces that shimmer between heaven and earth. He embodies that holy space. Being in his presence is akin to stepping onto holy ground where human logic is turned on its head and God’s poetry makes the rules.
When we encounter Jesus in today’s gospel he is at a turning point in his ministry, much as his ancestor Jacob was. Like Jacob, he pauses to spend time alone, waiting for God to show him which direction to take. And, foreshadowing his painful prayers in the Garden of Gesthemane, his attempt to spend time alone shows him the inevitable conclusion to his ministry: he must give and give and give of his life until it is finished. There will be no more rest for him from this time forward.
Prior to withdrawing to his “deserted place,” Jesus received the news that John the Baptist had been beheaded, by order of Herod. Jesus not only grieves the loss of a fellow prophet, but is painfully aware that the same fate awaits him. He knows he must ratchet-up his ministry to the Hebrew people before it is too late.
Jesus could understandably be so deep in his grief and foreboding that he has nothing left to give. The crowd follows him to his private space, hounding him for the word of God that only he can provide. But Jesus is the Holy Ground, the space where heaven and earth meet, where God greets his children and feeds them with overflowing abundance. So a new thing happens here. Jesus hands the job over to his disciples.
I picture them huddling around him, trying to protect him from the masses of people who are demanding attention. And Jesus doesn’t need or want their protection. He knows that it is not him they are trying to protect, but themselves. They are frightened of the crowds because they think that Jesus has no more to give.
Jesus, in their eyes, is a limited resource. In the previous section of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus spoke to the crowd in parables, but reserved the true meaning for their ears only. They were able to have Jesus to themselves and bathe in the light of his numinous presence. Now that the crowds have pushed brazenly into their holy space they fear that they will lose their intimate relationship with Jesus.
They don’t yet understand who Jesus has come to save.
The benevolent grace flowing from Jesus is ridiculously abundant. But like the angel wrestling with Jacob, Jesus knows that his disciples must struggle with the ramifications of this grace until they believe.
The feeding of the five thousand is not about how many are fed by such sparse ingredients. The purpose of the miracle is to teach the disciples how to struggle with God’s abundance.
Their fear is expressed in their objections:
“This is a deserted place… It is late … Send the crowds away so that they can find their own food in the village … Look! We only have five loaves and two fish! ... What are you thinking Jesus? Send them away!”
But Jesus does not operate on the scarcity principle. His grace flows from a spring with unlimited resources. He knows that it is now time for his disciples to get in the midst of God’s people and do the ministry they were called to do.
“You feed them,” says Jesus, “because it is not through me that they will be fed, but through you.” And Jesus performs the first Holy Communion. He takes the tiny meal, the paper-thin fish and fist-sized loaves of bread, and blesses them, breaks them, and gives them to the disciples.
Jesus doesn’t feed the crowds, the disciples do. In blessing the bread Jesus blesses the hands that feed and the mouths that consume the word of God. The disciples are forced to act through their fears and unbelief.
Jesus’ deep compassion for the miracle-starved masses triggers the first spread of the gospel. The disciple’s reaching out to feed the hungry from their own baskets of abundance, shimmering with Holy food for Holy People, fastens a faith within them that will not let them go.
And, just as Jacob would not let God go until he received his blessing, so Jesus will not let his people go away hungry. Jesus hangs on to us until we understand that to be fed by God we must feed God to others. We cannot stand around praying for God to help this broken world without involving ourselves. We must get down on our knees and ask God to give us the food with which we will do the work of healing what is broken.
God’s abundance in our lives is beyond our comprehension. The only way to unleash this unbounded love is to become willing to go of our fears and allow the mysterious holiness of God to shimmer around those we feed.
If we see the feeding of the five thousand as a just another miracle, says Barbara Brown Taylor, it lets “us off the hook. (Miracles) appeal to the part of us that is all too happy to let God feed the crowd, save the world, do it all.” God expects us to fight back, to argue and question; to tangle and struggle with the unruly ways of God. Miracles don’t happen unless we are willing to participate in them.
Taylor continues, “(God tells us), “Not me but you; not my bread but yours; not sometime or somewhere else but right here and now….Stop waiting for food to fall from the sky and share what you have. Stop waiting for a miracle and participate in one instead." (Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of Heaven)